Friday, May 19, 2006

a wailin' song and a good guitar, the only things that I understand

From my friend RJ Eskow, writing both at skippy and his own place, we learn of a musical crisis in the making (via NYTimes):
Mike Matthews, a sound-effects designer and one-time promoter of Jimi Hendrix, bought an unusual Russian factory making vacuum tubes for guitar amplifiers. Now he has encountered a problem increasingly common here: someone is trying to steal his company.

Sharp-elbowed personalities in Russia's business world are threatening this factory in a case that features accusations of bribery and dark hints of involvement by the agency that used to be the K.G.B.

For those of us who work in audio electronics, the "tube vs. transistor" debate has been going on for some time now. Ever since Lee DeForest put a grid into Fleming's Valve and turned it into the first voltage amplifier, tubes were an integral part of 20th century electronics. The introduction of transistors, followed by the integrated circuit (IC, or chip) largely did away with the need for tubes, since in many cases the "solid state" trnsistor based circuitry is more reliable, demands less operating power, runs cooler, in short, is more efficient.

But in the world of professional audio, tubes still command respect, and even awe. With their almost supernatural glow, they seem like science fiction props. But the real reverence is for their sound.

All electronics changes the signals going through them, hopefully in minimal ways. Tubes can, when pushed past their comfortable operating parameters, add 'distortion' to the sound that can be attractive to most ears. The adjectives "warm" or "smooth" are often used to describe tube audio gear. And nowhere is this more important than guitar amplifiers, where the tubes, or "valves" as our British cousins still call them, are driven far past the onset of distortion, to produce some of the characteristic growl and scream of the rock guitar.

Mike Matthews is most well know for being the founder of Electro-Harmonix, an innovative guitar effects maker know for such pedals as the Big Muff Pi (sorry, can't find the Greek symbol-the pun should still work). More recently Matthews has become one of the biggest evangelists for tube manufacturing with his New Sensor company, standing alonside Aspen Pitman of Groove Tubes here in Los Angeles.

The potential loss of the world's largest extant tube factory might not be a clear and present danger to rock'n'roll, but it would be a sad commentary on many things:
  • Mike Matthew's and Aspen Pittmans' commitment to keeping the sound real,
  • the music business again falling victim to thuggery,
  • GWBush's adolescent crush on Vlad Putin ("I have looked into his soul...")
Send letters and messages of support to Mike at

Much thanks to RJ Eskow for finding this. We both play guitar, and for us, this is really personal.

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